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Current Events, Music

Christian Discerment Regarding Music: A reflection and response

worship-in-churchI recently read a post which called for “discernment concerning the Christian music world.” The author, “EvangelZ” writes:

We have been told to be discerning in terms of what types of secular music to not assimilate into our minds if it is degrading, anti-Christ, and vulgar, to name a few.  But what about the call to be discerning concerning the Christian music world?

I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. We should–must–be discerning when it comes to what music we engage with. Our engagement with both Christian music and “secular” music (whatever these categories even mean) should be reflective of the content of that music. The list EvangelZ provided above is hardly comprehensive, but a good place to start. If our “Christian” music is “degrading” or “vulgar,” that would certainly seem to exclude it from any use in a worship service, and should be a strong reason against our integrating that music into our lives.

Indeed, I would contend that the content of the music should be essentially the criterion (with notable exceptions below) for the music deemed acceptable for a Christian to consume. Of course, there should be a real acknowledgement that some people have different levels of discernment or resilience than others (can we eat the meat offered in sacrifice to false gods or not? after all, it’s just some meat left out for some false idol? [see here if you’re not sure what I’m referencing]).

However, after this introductory comment, EvangelZ spent the rest of the post discussing how we should us discernment regarding Christian music by way of the lives of those who made the music. For example, one issue highlighted was Tim Lambesis’ (singer for “As I Lay Dying”) apostasy. Now, setting aside the issue of whether any “As I Lay Dying” song could even possibly be used in a worship service (although I like metal, I hardly think it lends itself to corporate worship and singing praises), what I want to briefly touch on is exactly this notion: should our discernment apply to content of the music or to the lives of the musicians (or, of course, both)?

After reading the post, I wrote a comment, and I’d like to just reflect on what I wrote there a bit more. I’ll reproduce my comment, in part, here:

[T]he criteria given for discernment in “Christian” music are pretty much all matters of personal character of the musicians, not the actual content of the music. I’m wondering why on the one hand it is content (“secular” music) but on the other (“Christian” music), it is the people producing the music. This raises a number of questions for me:

1) Why the difference in criteria?
=> 1A) Is it because music functions didactically and so we should be aware of who is “teaching” us through music?
=> 1B) If so, then do we need to know about the lives of every single person who has written a song that we use in worship before we are able to use it?
2) If we are to use character as a criteria of discernment for worship music, does that not essentially mean we can’t use any music?
=> Explanation: everyone is a sinner in the process of sanctification, so by default anyone who has written a song we use in worship has still sinned.
=> 2A) Or is the issue simply unrepentant sin?

I think all of these questions are issues we must deal with as we consider the need for discernment in whatever music we listen to. I’ll provide a brief reflection on each issue I raised in these questions:

1) I am unconvinced that there should be any difference in our criteria for discernment when reflecting on Christian or “secular” music. Part of this is because I’m not sure such a dichotomy actually does exist (see here), and part is because I don’t know why such a distinction should exist.
1A) If we grant that hymns or music used in church functions didactically–as teaching–then perhaps a case could be made, but I think, abstractly, the content should once again be the ultimate judge of whether a teaching is good (or not).
1B) Because we cannot feasibly be required to know about the lives of all who write the music we listen to, this cannot serve as a viable criterion for discernment. Perhaps exceptions could be made in those cases wherein we do know something should (and what does “should” mean here?) disqualify one (i.e. I could see the knowledge that ‘the person who wrote this hymn is a satanist’ as a perfectly sound reason for not using a hymn), but one cannot realistically be expected to know about the lives of every single artist who writes any part of our hymnody (or music generally).

2) Because all are sinners, if character is a criterion for discernment, it would seem that all are disqualified.
2A) However, perhaps the qualification could be made that it is merely persistent, unrepentant sin which should disqualify one. But then one has muddied the waters via 1B again.

Thus, I think that for Christians, the best way to use discernment is to apply the truths of the Bible to the content of the music. We cannot realistically be expected to know the backgrounds of every individual who writes the music we may listen to or use in worship, and with the caveat noted above, I think the criterion simply should be the content–the lyrics–of the music. How do we analyze the content? Well I think there are a number of factors, including those rightfully noted above by EvangelZ. God’s revelation in Scripture and the gift of conscience should be our guides.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

On Christian Music– I reflect on the category of “Christian Music” and whether it is even a functionally helpful tool.

Engaging Culture: Demon Hunter’s “Extremist” and the Apologetic Task– I discuss the latest album from Demon Hunter and how music may act as an apologetic endeavor.

The Call for Discernment Concerning the Christian Music World– Be sure to read the post to which I responded here, and see what you think of their reasoning. I think this is an issue worth discussing.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

 

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “Christian Discerment Regarding Music: A reflection and response

  1. My dear brother, you hit on a subject close to my heart and very relevant at this stage of my life. My youngest daughter, a believer, has gotten to that stage in life where she wants to be like other kids (not just a preacher’s kid). She wants to listen to the stuff (I say trash) that “normal” children listen to, not just the Christian stuff. Getting her to see why I disapprove is not an easy task…even if she does, she will probably never admit it.

    I grew up in a musical family. I was even fortunate enough to play for years with different bands, one of which had a Top 20 and was on a record label in Nashville (recording in Nashville is awesome). The point is that I understand a little about music and its power to move, motivate, and persuade. That is why it concerns me very much what my daughter listens to. For that matter, as a pastor, it concerns me what my congregation listens to. It is not the style of music, the beat, the rhythm, or what have you; it’s the LYRICS.

    You and the author you refer to bring up some good points about who actually writes the songs. However, for me that is not so much of an issue unless singing or playing the song (especially in corporate worship) runs the risk of sanctioning blatant, unrepentant heresy. The real issue for me is the words which are sung. So many people say that when it comes to their music choices, “I don’t really listen to the words; I just like the music.” The problem with that logic is that it dismisses certain facts: 1) the brain can discern lyrics even when we are not consciously aware of what we are listening to; 2) the reason a song has lyrics and is not an instrumental piece is because the song writer has a message he wants to convey. So, like I told my youngest, “If the tune is all you care about, then why not listen to instrumentals?”

    All songs, unless they were purposefully written to be nonsensical, have some sort of message. From the country song to the rock ballad; from the blues to bluegrass; if there are lyrics put to music, somebody’s telling a story, promoting a worldview, and creating sympathy (whether realized, or not) in the heart and mind of the listener. Do I want my daughter listening to Beyonce describe her sexual encounters in the back seat of a limo? Do I want my daughter to listen to Katy Perry’s thoughts on partying? Does a cool beat and a stirring melody justify my child listening to the country music stories of drunken bar hopping, lustful cowboys, and riding the previous instead of a horse? There is some good, wholesome, and fun stuff out there that does not blaspheme the name of God, but somebody needs to stand in the gap and be the parent.

    Sorry for going so long, but there is a lot more I could say. I just wanted to throw in at least my two and a half cents.

    Posted by Anthony Baker | September 9, 2014, 9:18 AM
    • Anthony,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and insight! I have my firstborn on the way and so these are the kinds of things I have been contemplating more as well.

      I think we pretty much agree with what is being said here. In the post, I tried to make it pretty clear that I don’t really think the life of someone is a functional criterion for evaluating whether we should listen to a specific piece of music, for the reasons I outlined. Thus, I think we’re both saying that lyrics should be the way we evaluate music, not the background information.

      Thanks again for stopping by! Glad it gave you a way to formulate some thoughts.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 9, 2014, 10:54 AM
  2. I have to disagree that it’s only the lyrics that must be evaluated. The tone of the piece is every bit as important. I have heard what can only be described as screaming and have had Christians try to defend that because the lyrics (which are impossible to discern) were “Christian”. It just seems to me obvious that much of the popular youth music is degrading and not at all uplifting. Some of it just sounds angry and bitter – it does nothing to elevate the mind toward the good, the true, or the beautiful, but can only do the opposite.
    As the Psalms, Romans, etc. all make clear, a message is conveyed by much more than just lyrics (verbal speech).

    –Bill

    Posted by williamfrancisbrown | September 10, 2014, 6:16 AM
    • Thanks for your comment, Bill! I would be interested in seeing what biblical support you would muster up to defend the notion that certain styles of music are inherently not Christian (or at least implicitly as you put with the scare quotes around “Christian”). I do not think a genre or style of music may be such that it is irredeemable or inherently evil. Moreover, the notion that a song ” just sounds angry and bitter” is, I would say, truly a matter of opinion. What to one person’s ears may sound like nothing but bitter screaming may to another’s sound like the need for crying out in a world full of evil. There are plenty of Psalms with content to reflect this notion as well; surely some of these would read as “angry and bitter” to a reader who was looking to find them only irredeemable. Psalm 137 comes to mind here.

      So to put it succinctly: I do not think a genre can be inherently irredeemable, and I think that musical style is largely (entirely?) a matter of personal taste.

      To put a question to you in addition to all this: if a Psalm were set to music which was only screaming, would that somehow undermine its redemptive content or its inspiration?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 10, 2014, 6:37 PM
  3. JW, I am surprised you would a proof texts to support a general principle embedded in scripture. I think we can find support for my points throughout the Bible. The tone of a musical piece is not really just a matter of opinion. That’s a relativistic thoroughly modern way to think. Just as in architecture and in my work as a furniture maker, there are classical hierarchies of beauty. The more one trains the eye, the more one can perceive what is good and what is better in aesthetics. Roger Scruton, Terry Teachout, Jacques Ellul, and many others have written well on this. But anyone who digs and makes a study of any area of art or music will find these things.

    “…. What to one person’s ears may sound like nothing but bitter screaming may to another’s sound like the need for crying out in a world full of evil.” This is a culturally conditioned idea and not at all supported by a study of the history of music or aesthetics. I do not argue that musical style is entirely a matter of taste, but I do argue that there is such a thing as bad, good, better, and best. If you are arguing that it’s all relative or subjective, then I disagree with you.

    Good discussion JW,

    –Bill

    Posted by williamfrancisbrown | September 12, 2014, 8:29 AM
    • Thanks once more for the thoughtful comment!

      First I would note that I didn’t ask for a proof text, I questioned the biblical support. I have yet to see a single passage cited to support the contention that certain genres of music are inherently irredeemable. All you’ve said is that the whole of Scripture (or at least Psalms, Romans, and some other parts) supports your contention. Well, if so, it should be easy to cite something, anything, which could hint at the notion that a genre of music is incapable of being used for the glory of God.

      I agree that there is objectivity in beauty, but I disagree with the assessment that a genre or style of music is inherently evil/bad/unworthy. To say so would be like saying “Gothic architecture is inherently evil” or “watercolor paintings are inherently irredeemable.” I genuinely see no difference between these types of statements and saying something like “Heavy metal can only be ‘degrading and not at all uplifting.'”

      In regards to the comment that such music can only be “degrading and not at all uplifting,” I would point out that I know for myself and many of my friends that this music, in fact, is often uplifting and empowering. It seems to me that your comments are not based on any sort of objectivity, but rather that you’re substituting your opinion on a style of music [and here, remember, we could replace ‘music’ with ‘architecture,’ ‘painting,’ ‘sculpting,’ and the like] for an objective standard.

      Thus, I would point out that you are faced with a number of difficulties. Apart even from those noted above, you’re faced with a dilemma: either tell me (and many others) that we are mistaken in our experience of some forms of music as uplifting, and that we are really being degraded and not at all uplifted; or admit that you’re mistaken.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 12, 2014, 3:48 PM
      • J.W, I will respond very briefly as I have two minutes between cases, and hope to get back later. Firstly, I think you misunderstand what I am saying. I was actually surprised that YOU would be asking me for bible verses that support a contention that any music is irredeemable ( my typo made that unclear). I think that there is plenty of support for the need to fill our minds with what is good and beautiful and to avoid what is not. I never claimed that heavy metal was irredeemable, nor that any genre is evil (although it would not be too hard to do that with self-classified Satanic styles which seem to be proliferating).

        I sense that you are defensive in support of heavy metal. I agree that there may well be heavy metal that speaks to the human condition and brings people closer to a growth in their full humanity or their knowledge of God; I concede that that is possible.

        To better hone in on what I was thinking I think I can find some clips, to back up my points – perhaps you could listen briefly and tell me if the Christian music is not degrading (no scare quotes, I know I’m never to judge the heart). I sense we might be talking about different things and talking past each other.

        I think that my main point was that music and all art is not purely a relative thing. Are there absolutes in music,as we believe there is absolute truth in other areas of life and eternity? I tend to think so, but people get really offended and take it personally at just the notion. I think are examples in demonstration of the point, that there surely exists a gradation or ladder (and yes, Bach and Handel are far up the ladder). If you concede that there is
        objectively in music, then that means there is such a thing as good and bad music, or better and worse, does it not?

        I would argue that as music gets better, it gives more pleasure and it brings us closer to God. I suppose we’ll know more when we hear music in heaven.

        Sorry that was a lot longer than I had time for. Gotta run………….

        –bb

        Posted by williamfrancisbrown | September 12, 2014, 5:41 PM
      • Sorry it took so long to get back. I was in the hospital with wife and having our firstborn!

        Anyway, I’d like to respond to just a couple points. First, the reason I was talking about metal is because the first thing you brought up was screaming. Metal is certainly the genre which I think most people would immediately assume was being discussed. It’s not some “defensive”ness that got me to that point but rather honing in on the specifics.

        Second, granting objectivity in music, and granting that you aren’t saying any specific style is inherently irredeemable, I’m not sure where the disagreement would lie any more. I think you’d also grant lyrics would be a very important way to evaluate the music, so the disagreement would have to lie in the style (genre?) of music and its appropriateness–that is the music itself without any words. At this point, I do think a lot of it does come down to preference. Some people just don’t like Bach and Handel. That may mean their musical taste is, well, off… but it doesn’t mean that whatever they listen to is inherently bad somehow.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | September 21, 2014, 11:09 AM
      • J.W., I think we are pretty much on the same page here. But, waaaaay more importantly…..

        ……Congratulations on your new baby!!

        That’s a very blessed baby to have such wonderful parents.

        –Bill

        Posted by williamfrancisbrownw | September 21, 2014, 1:08 PM

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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